Why Duff McKagan Still Does His Laundry in the Sink
Guns N' Roses founding member discusses his solo album "Tenderness."
Posted Jun 04, 2019
“Everybody’s lyin’, I need some truth”—from “It’s Not Too Late” by Duff McKagan
Here’s a question for all of you music nerds out there: Which rock musicians have had success not only in at least three prominent bands but also as a solo artist?
So far, my list includes Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Neil Young, Robert Plant, and Chris Cornell. And, in my opinion, at least one more person belongs in that elite fraternity: Duff McKagan. While being a founding member of hard rock legends and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Guns N' Roses, Velvet Revolver, and, albeit briefly, Jane’s Addiction, qualifies McKagan on the band criteria, I also dig his early work as a drummer for indie rock pioneers Fastbacks, and the Seattle hardcore bands The Fartz and 10 Minute Warning. So pick your poison.
And with his new album Tenderness and world tour, McKagan continues to make a strong case for himself as a solo artist. McKagan’s shift to a definitively softer and more subdued tone is being well received, with Rolling Stone calling the album, “…full of beauty and heart,” and Louder saying “… the songs gleam like jewels in the desert sun.”
Having given us original music for 40 years, how has McKagan been so prolific for so long across different genres of music, different bands, and even different instruments? As he tells the story, McKagan’s secret sauce is an ongoing commitment to pursuing a raw authenticity that has been consistent throughout his career: “Three chords and the truth.”
McKagan traces his approach to his roots growing up in the Seattle punk rock and hardcore scene. Initially, he was lured in by the in-your-face intensity of the music, but he soon found himself drawn to truths about cultures and issues that went beyond his local scene.
“Punk rock … it was this whole new world … I saw the posters on the telephone poles … and I was so intrigued. I had just started playing music. And I saw these fliers for D.O.A. and The Lewd, The Mentors and I was like, ‘Hey, what is this stuff about?’ There were probably 120 people total in Seattle that were into this kind of music,” McKagan told me.
“They turned me onto music by The Clash and by Stiff Little Fingers. Foreign bands were talking about foreign subjects. I didn’t know what a ‘Suspect Device’ was. It wasn’t until my mom walked into my room one day and I was listening to Stiff Little Fingers and she started crying. And I’m like, ‘Why are you crying?’ She said, ‘These poor boys, they are in The Troubles in Ireland.’ And I’m like, 'What are The Troubles?’ And a suspect device is a bomb. I was like, ‘Whoa, I thought it was just a jam.’ So, it opened me up to this whole kind of international politics I guess and people going through different things than I was in Seattle.”
According to McKagan, the early era of hardcore wasn’t just about learning, but about a more general openness to alternative perspectives. “For me from ’78 to early ’82 it was very pure and good. So the hardcore ethic and this punk ethic has been this thing of openness—kind of chest out, head up telling the truth … When [Henry] Rollins came into Black Flag, hardcore was still a pure and open and inviting place. Anybody could come—weirdos, geeks, jocks—whatever, doesn’t matter,” McKagan described. “But it got kind of closed down, it became kind of a dress code. And some kids from suburban areas started coming in and they thought that slam dancing was fighting. And some things started to come in—like you started seeing some people doing the Hitler salute. It was like whoa, whoa, whoa whoa—wrong idea. This isn’t about that.
“Three chords and the truth is really what it’s about.”
Part of what made punk rock, and particularly hardcore, feel so open and inviting was that the bright line that had previously existed between “rock stars” and their audience had been erased, resulting in a more intimate relationship between artists and fans. “I’d just seen Led Zeppelin at the Kingdome. And I love Led Zeppelin to this day … But they were so unattainable. They were so far away … you’d never meet them. But here these bands were coming through town. I met The Clash and they said from the stage, ‘There’s no difference between you and us the band—we’re all in this together,’” McKagan recalled. “That has impacted me to this day … It might be the whole crowd. It might be one person you see in the front that you make eye contact. And you see there’s a deeper story … And I know there’s a deeper story because I’ve gone out and talked to those people.
“Because The Clash came and talked to me.”
As McKagan shifted from playing drums to bass and became a songwriter in his own right, he began to experiment with a more punk-infused hard rock style of music that became the trademark of Guns N’ Roses. And despite the fact that Guns N’ Roses was a definitively hard rock band, and that the other band members did not hail from the punk and hardcore scene, he found that they all shared the same raw punk rock honesty which came through in the music. McKagan commented particularly on singer Axl Rose’s authentic nature.
“You know Axl … his way was certainly truthful … I mean he was like Henry Rollins. When I first met him, he couldn’t lie if you held him over a fire … He wouldn’t. He didn’t go through the hardcore scene. He just had it naturally. And the guys in that band—all of them—had the edge,” McKagan explained. “And maybe it was because we moved to L.A. in the case of Axl, Izzy [Stradlin] and myself. When you move to a different city to do music, you know you’re going to be a lifer. Like this isn’t a hobby. And I was looking for other people where it wasn’t a f*cking hobby. We didn’t have anything to fall back on.”
McKagan described two challenges that emerged as time went on. The first was that as Guns N’ Roses became more popular and, therefore, played in front of larger crowds, McKagan felt that he was losing his connection to his punk rock roots and to his audience.
“We connected with our audience because it was only three people at first. And it grew to seven and it grew to 30 and it grew to 50 and it grew and grew … We’re playing stadiums where the audience is 50 feet away from the stage. How do I get that same connection? They’re not sweating on me. They’re not spitting. They’re not singing the lyrics in my ear as I’m playing,” McKagan explained. “I did go through a little punk rock guilt I suppose … I talked to other people about it too, like Stone [Gossard] and Jeff [Ament] from Pearl Jam. They know what I’m talking about … In Guns N’ Roses I was doing nothing different than what I was doing with the Fastbacks, the Fartz … It was truthful and honest and we’re going out there, giving 110% and connecting with an audience. But when the band blows up … Our band got so big that naturally it turned into a machine at one point. And I lost my footing a little bit. That was a fast adjustment for a punk rock kid to make.
“It was a fast adjustment for us all to make.”
Another big change was that McKagan now had money—and punk rockers are not supposed to be in it for the money. “I think money was one thing. I wasn’t struggling. I didn’t know what money was. I had money in my bank but I didn’t know how to spend it. I didn’t want to spend it,” he said. “It’s simple—I’d never been introduced to the f*cking world of business or commerce. You’re selling things. So, you’re going to make money because you’re selling a lot of it. Okay, I’m not supposed to make money. That’s not what I got into this for. It’s an adjustment period.”
The other issue that pulled McKagan away from his connection to his authentic truth was his battle with alcohol and cocaine addiction. McKagan described how as he began the recovery process, he began to grapple with many issues that he had avoided, including his conflicted feelings regarding his new found fame and fortune.
“It wasn’t until I got sober and I was 30 years old that, literally in the hospital—I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks—and I started having my first sober thoughts. And there was a million of them coming at me, ‘What am I gonna do? Can I play music again? Is my life over? Is it not going to be fun anymore? Oh, I get to live, though. Maybe I can have a family. Maybe I can go to college now. I think I’ve got money now. Do I have money? Who’s taking money from me? I better find out about money,’” McKagan described. “And I got out of that hospital and I listened to the Ruts and I listened to things that brought me back to a simpler time in my life. And I road on my mountain bike and began to figure things out. Like, why did I have punk rock guilt? What was that guilt about? And I started to put things together. I’m not a kid anymore – I’m thirty. Which to me now still seems like a fucking kid. And I’m like f*ck yeah – knowledge is power … This is true power. It’s not money.”
Eventually, he came to realize that success was not the enemy of his truth or his connection with the audience. In fact, he reflected on how important music had been to him throughout his life and realized he was paying it forward.
“Music heals us … It heals a broken heart … Music’s gotten me through panic attacks. Music’s gotten me through touches of depression. You know if you hold on to one song—just listen to it over and over again—you’ll be safe, you can breathe,” McKagan said.
“People loved the band—that’s great… The band … It f*cking spoke to them. Your f*cking music’s helped people. Your music’s done stuff for people on a really huge scale. You should be thankful for that. Don’t have guilt about that.”
And so it was that McKagan began to reaffirm the core principles that drew him to punk rock and hardcore music in the first place. He harkened back to when he was learning about issues and cultures around the world through music and began to refocus his attention to the power of knowledge. Accordingly, McKagan eventually went to college and business school.
“And I began realizing what a great writer Blaine [Cook] from the Fartz was … He was smarter than me. I wasn’t paying attention to what he was saying. We were just going out and playing those songs. And I was like, ‘How’d you get smart?’ And I started reading books and I went to college,” McKagan explained. “And for a guy like me who went through what I went through it was so empowering. And I was reading books. Okay, Civil War—I want to know everything I can about the Civil War. I’m an extremist. And I’m a punker. And I’m thorough. I’m going to read twenty books from each side of the Civil War. Polar exploration—I want to know everything about it … And I met my wife at a certain point, and got into business school. And I wanted to know … What is a stock? What is a bond? I don’t know what any of this stuff means. Gaining knowledge of that was empowering.”
McKagan credits a great deal of his sustained recovery to his martial arts practice and the small behaviors that built a healthy and honest life. And interestingly, he noticed that one of the habits that grounded him, and he had been doing all along, was washing his own clothes when he was on the road.
“I didn’t go to therapy. I went to martial arts. Which in itself did more for me than maybe twelve therapists could have. It was Ukidokan. It was a system of martial arts where you took responsibility for your actions. And you treated others well and you treated yourself well. And you make amends to people that you’ve hurt. And I realized ten years later that’s what they do in AA. I started really sharpening up my life and taking responsibility … I returned every phone call I got. I made my bed. Small things. But I’d wake up in the morning and have nothing left undone,” McKagan said. “I’m always coming from the same place… I still do my laundry in the sink. Even on the biggest f*cking tours where you could have someone doing your laundry, I still do my laundry in my sink. There are some habits I just can’t f*cking break. And in turn I’ve taught my wife and daughter to do that too when we’re on the road.”
As McKagan delved into his work with Velvet Revolver, he continued to prioritize his recovery and reaffirmed the songwriting process he felt that he learned from his early punk days.
“If you look at a Fartz record, it’s railing against the man, it’s railing against apathy. It’s about thinking for yourself,” McKagan described. “And nothing’s really changed … I know there are songwriters who know how to write songs for other artists and stuff … that really know how to write songs for the masses. But that’s a whole different art—I have no idea what that’s about really. I’ve been in this world this whole time where you write songs that speak to you first … and then you go out and you play it and you hope other people connect with it. But you’ve got to write for yourself first,” he said. “And getting to Velvet Revolver … that was a time when we were 40, maybe being looked at as too old. And it was kind of that thing again – well, it’s us against them. We’ll show them … and we wrote songs for ourselves.”
And so it was with that same mentality that McKagan approached Tenderness. “I’ve always wanted to do a musically sparse record. I’ve made little attempts at it in my past. I wanted to do a Johnny Thunders So Alone acoustic record … I’ve wanted to do a Mark Lanegan acoustic record since I heard Winding Sheet.
In this album, McKagan takes on more societal issues and what he sees in the world. One issue he takes on is the dangers of social media, which he sees as often antithetical to the commitment to the truth he seeks in his music.
“Social media is not a truth teller. It’s not the sage of all. I’ve had to raise my girls … We’ve had to wade them through this miasma of opinions—anonymous opinions … In 2004 we had a fan forum … And I would go on there, and people would post, and rarely would they use their real names. And there was this guy, and he was posting about our band. And some of the stuff was right on—and I was reading it all. And then sometimes he would criticize us,” McKagan recalled. “And it was the Netherlands, we’re playing this gig, and I’m backstage at this concert. Kind of like a meet and greet of fans … And this kid comes up to me, he was 14. And he gave me his social media name – and he was the kid that I was living and breathing on every post he made. He was 14. And I stayed in touch with him, and he met his wife at a Loaded show.
“But that kind of taught me all I needed to know about social media.”
The themes in Tenderness are diverse, ranging from sexual assault to drug addiction to homelessness and war profiteering. There is perhaps an irony that as McKagan’s music became at first blush a far cry from punk and hardcore, it in fact went back to the roots of those genres in shedding light on important societal issues. “And these were stories I experienced when we were on the road. Things I took note of. And we’re really not talking about having an opinion … some of these things I’m not informed enough. But I am on the opioids. I am about the drugs. I’m trying to discover about homelessness. I wrote about my fear … maybe that’s why we’re fearful, because we’re like two bad moves away from being there ourselves.”
And he hearkens back to the openness and acceptance he learned from punk and hardcore in his approach to these issues. “It’s easy to have an opinion on everything. Sometimes those opinions are really uninformed. Sometimes when someone’s going through a disease like alcoholism or drug addiction, it’s easy for someone to be like, ‘f*ck that, pull yourself out of it.’ Or you see a homeless person, ‘Get a f*cking job,’” McKagan pondered. “You don’t know what happened to them. We don’t know about their abuse as a child and putting them in foster care and them getting abused in foster care and drugs and they had no way f*cking out ever. We don’t know. That could be the truth or not the truth about that homeless person you told to get a f*cking job.
“But we all do it. We all prejudge. I’m not perfect—I do it, too. But maybe take a step back—especially in this day of social media and what not, take a step back … I’m sure we all posted something where we wish we had more information before we posted it. We have to have empathy for each other. The America I know, at our best, f*cking helped each other without question. We didn’t ask who we voted for, we didn’t ask how much money you made. After 9/11 we helped each other. After hurricanes we helped each other … fires … I could go on. That’s the America I know, we didn’t ask who we voted for, we were just there for each other … And that goes for the rest of the world. I’ve traveled and … we have so much more in common with each other than what separates us by far.”
Interestingly, none other than Henry Rollins took note of the concept behind McKagan’s new solo album. And McKagan got some true validation that he had been sticking to his authentic hardcore roots all along.
“I’m doing a f*cking interview with f*cking Henry Rollins. He’s one of those guys. There’s Prince, there’s Henry Rollins, and there’s Iggy. There are certain people in my life that are untouchable. I never really wanted to meet him because he’s Henry Rollins,” McKagan said. “All of a sudden it comes up that he’s going to interview me. He’s researched the album—he knows every song and every lyric. I’m like, holy sh*t he’s going to tear me apart. But the first thing he said was, 'This is the most punk rock record I’ve heard in the longest time.’
“I felt like if I got that from Henry Rollins, that I’ve achieved what I’ve tried to do, which is three chords and the truth.”